Zero tolerance, Dallas-style, has been in effect for two months for many dioceses and the results are starting to come in. What they show is that fixing the cover-up of priests' abuse of minors is best handled with prudence and care — more prudence and care, perhaps, than the bishops' June 14 Dallas meeting allowed.
The policy has not been a total disaster. In many cases, it has done exactly what its supporters hoped: driven from ministry men who have no business being there — men who have abused minors, scarring them emotionally for life, and causing grave scandal.
But it has also “zeroed out” some priests who could be doing great good in their ministries — men like those cited in our Page One story this week. One was guilty as a teen-ager of indecent exposure. Decades later he became Catholic; still later he became a priest. But all of a sudden, the long-ago incident is enough to remove him from ministry. Another priest was apparently “zeroed out” because, while an 18-year-old seminarian on leave, he had an affair with a 16-year-old girl. He told his rector about the incident, which put it on his record and has now, years later, caused his dismissal.
Incidents like these have sparked protests in parishes. Parishioners understand the need to remove priests who pose a danger to minors. They are questioning what good is served by removing those who don't.
The bishops' conference leaders themselves admitted the Dallas meeting alone did not give them enough time to achieve a better solution than they did, but it was necessary to produce something in order to appease hostile media and an anxious public. It couldn't even attempt to address the root cases of the abuse cover-up.
This brought us the spectacle of bishops telling the meeting they disagreed with the policy but suggesting their brother bishops vote for it anyway.
The bishops' conference is a consensus-forming instrument. The way it works, through committees, produces documents that most bishops can agree with, or at least live with. This can be effective at showing a common purpose and a shared good will on the part of bishops, but it discourages nuance — and courage — in its answers to complicated questions. Individual bishops' ideas, no matter how weighty, come across as nitpicking when they are raised at such a meeting.
It is no place, as one archbishop put it, “to do theology.”
How can the bishops form a better policy — one that is harder on root causes and less prone to a “shoot-first, ask-questions-later” approach?
A plenary council would seem to be the best way. Some 50 bishops have signed on to one proposal for such a council. There is no need for enthusiasts of the workings of the bishops' conference to get defensive over the proposal to handle the abuse cover-up crisis with a council. The approach of the U.S. bishops' conference can work well in many circumstances, but it has patently and publicly failed in this extraordinary circumstance.
A plenary council would allow the kind of input from bishops and representatives from the wider Church that generated such energy and enthusiasm at Vatican II.
Vatican II worked because it allowed for wide-ranging input from bishops around the world in a way that was not dominated and controlled by powerful committee chairmen. What the Church in the United States needs now is wide-ranging input from bishops across the country to address the fundamental issues at play in the scandal.